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Since moving to the UK in 2003 I have visited Paris too many times to count – falling in love with it a little more each time. Below is my Paris 1.01 – A guide to my favourite city in the world – this guide will no doubt change and grow over time. I am not going to write about the tourist destinations – La Tour Eiffel
, l’Arc de Triomphe
, because no-doubt you are going to visit those places anyway. Instead, I am giving you a few less touristy options that you can weave into your visit, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the Paris I’ve come to adore.
Paris is my favourite city in the world – hands down. But it wasn’t always! My first experience of Paris was a stressful one… I was 19, fresh off the gap-year boat, and had no idea how to be a smart traveller. I also stayed at a grotty hostel and got stuck in the metro ticket gates due to my overly massive backpack. It was during that week that I made two lifelong changes to the way I travel: Forget backpacks, wheelie cases are the way forward. And hostels are just not my thing! I have Paris to thank for those lessons learned!
I have met many people over the years who haven’t enjoyed Paris. Often times it is because they have romantic notions of the city, but haven’t taken into account the millions of other tourists, or the nature of a big city. I urge you to give Paris more than one chance!
Where to stay
My favourite area in Paris
is the 5th arrondissment (the Latin Quarter), but accommodation in the 4th (Marais) and 6th (Saint Germain) is also convenient. These three arrondissment straddle the Seine either side of Ile de la Cité and Ile Saint-Louis (the little islands in the middle of the Seine). The Latin Quarter stretches from the Boulevard Saint Michel and the Jardin des Luxumbourg to the Jardin des Plantes and down to Place d’Italie – it includes the famous Left Bank, the Sorbonne, the Pantheon, the Arab Institute and many lovely streets full of cafes. It is a great base to walk around Paris and has easy transport links. Search engines use ‘Saint Germain-Luxembourg’ and ‘Pantheon-Notre-Dame’ or ‘Latin Quarter’ as identifiers. There are many 2 and 3 star hotels along Rue Monge and Rue des Ècoles – such as Villa Pantheon
which is a lovely 4-star, or Hotel de France Latin Quarter
– a clean and good value 2-star. My favourite spots are near Luxembourg Gardens (Hotel Relais Saint Jacques
) or in the Rue Monge / Rue des Écoles area, such as Hotel Agora Saint Germain
, as it is equi-distant between my favourite attractions in town and Montparnasse. For something posh, and if you can get a good earlybird or last minute deal, try Hotel Le M
Where to eat
Cave La Bourgogne
My number one favourite hangout in Paris + the biggest salads ever!
Square St Médard (bottom of Rue Mouffetard)
Metro: Censier Daubenton / Les Gobelins
By far the best bistro in the fifth – lovely outdoor seating area with heat lamps, overlooking Square St Médard and the lively markets at the bottom of Rue Mouffetard. You can get the most amazingly huge salads ever – the Salade Complèt is only €11. Huge bowls with more goats cheese, sautéed potatoes, meat and salad than you can shake a stick at! I’ve been going back for the last 15 years and the staff are still the same – now that’s the sign of a good restaurant!
For a seriously good steak + elbow-to-elbow trestle-table French dining
41 Rue Monsieur le Prince (off Boulevard St Germain)
Metro: St Germain des Pres (although, walkable from Latin Quartier)
Open Mon-Sat 12-2.30 & 7-12:30am, Sunday 12-2.30 & 7-11pm. This is a proper traditional french eatery – trestle tables, everyone sitting side-by-side, eating amazing food. They have a decent set menu for about €20 for 3 courses – but I recommend dining a lá carte, and getting the rump steak with pepper sauce (steak au poivre) served ‘bleu’ (alternatives are ‘saignant’ for rare, or ‘à point’ for medium rare). Asking for well-done steak is very insulting! I usually average 2 courses, wine & coffee for about £25. Unfortunately, this place became a little famous after it was featured in Woody Allen’s 2011 film ‘Midnight in Paris’ – so the level of annoying tourists, who don’t bother learning any french beforehand, has increased. Although I do laugh when I imagine the looks on their faces at the traditional tiled squat toilet that the restaurant offers!
The best street in Paris!
Metro: Rue Monge
I cannot say it enough – this street rocks. There are markets at the bottom, and fresh food shops in the lower quarter – bakeries, butchers, cheese shops, wine shops, fresh pasta etc. Then if you meander up the way you’ll find gift shops, trinkets, clothes, restaurants, cafes, bowling, and at the top – Place de la Contrescarpe – a wee square with cafes all around! If you hit this place in the morning, grab yourself some croissants for brekkie, a french stick and some cheese, and baby, you’ll dine like kings for about €5 for the day! If you keep walking up, you end up at The Pantheon too – so there’s sightseeing to be done nearby. A local massage school also camps out on fine evenings at Place de la Contrescarpe – and will give you a great neck/back rub by donation. For a good value French set menu costing between €15-22, hit Mouff’tôt Mouff’tard at 71 Rue Mouffetard or Au Petit Bistrot at 89 Rue Mouffetard; avoid the touristy places on Rue du Pot de Fer – as you may as well go further down the road and spend €5 more and get something significantly better (if you want tourist tat, see below for Left Bank info). One place on Rue du Pot de Fer that I would recommend is Le Bar de Fer – a great wine bar with graffiti on the walls and live music. I can also recommend the disco bowling at 73 Rue Mouffetard – nothing like a bit of blue-light bowling whilst drunk on cheap house wine!
I would also recommend Place de la Contrescarpe and the bars on Mouffetard for the Heures Heureuses (happy hours), although you will find them all over the city. There is no such thing as ONE happy hour in France, it is always multiple hours – usually running from 17h00 to 19h00 or 20h00 (i.e. dinner time). Apéro time is taken VERY seriously in France, and heures heureuses allow one to enjoy many apéritifs for very reasonable prices.
This is Tourist-town – pushy waiters will vie for your custom – but it can be cheap!
Metro: Saint-Michel; Saint-Michel Notre Dame; Cluny – La Sorbonne
On La Rive Gauche (the Left Bank) is a warren of wee streets off the Seine – these have been taken over by restaurants and tourist tat shops. However, there are some deals to be had – if you’ve run out of money and only have €10-12 euro left, this is where you can come and still get a 3-course meal! A tip is to avoid the touters and go to the smaller busier-looking places. I quite enjoy taking a walk through the Leftbank purely for the atmosphere and buzz. For a cheap Moroccan meal, try Au Bon Couscous on 7 Rue Xavier Privas; for an French set menu, try La cour de la Huchette on 13 Rue de la Huchette or Chez Clement on 2 Rue des Prêtres Saint-Séverin; for a sweet treat, check out Maison Georges Larnicol (for cheap macarons), or Sud tunisien (for amazing Tunisian sweet treats), both on opposite corners where Rue de la Harpe meets Rue Saint-Séverin.
Before dinner, you must, of course, take a wander along the Seine on the Left bank between Quai de la Tournelle and Quai Voltaire to visit the Bouquinistes (book sellers) at this UNESCO World Heritage site. I once got a beautiful antique volume of Baudelaire’s Fleur du Mal there – special!
Les Deux Magots
6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés
This cafe in Saint Germain is where Jean-Paul Satre and Anais Nin used to hang out. It has now been restored to its former (more expensive) glory, and for a posh lunch it is divine. I recommend the duck or the Salade Niçoise. Across the road you have Armani, Cartier, and Swarovsky – very swish!
13 Rue Moret
This place is rough and ready and fantastic – with over 40 absinthes (try the La Clandestine, Angelique, and Butterfly – as these are made by friends of mine). It would definitely be classed as more of a ‘rock bar’; they also have gigs in the downstairs bar. We once stayed so long and drank so much absinthe that the bar tender bought us drinks at the end of the night 😉
Au Cafe de Paris
158 rue Oberkampf
Head up to the end of the street to discover this beautiful belle époque bar. It doesn’t look like much, but walk right to the end of the bar and there is a frescoed ballroom that hosts theatre, poetry and music, downstairs is a tiny cellar bar for bands.
Au Lapin Agile
22 Rue des Saules
Metro: Lamarck – Caulaincourt
This is an old fashioned French cabaret, with folk singing and poetry – so don’t go here if you want frilly knickers and a can-can. But it is a special evening, and much sought after (guests get squished into bench seats around the performers and served cherry liquor on arrival). It is my hope to one day play here!
Moulin Rouge / Lido / Crazy Horse
These are the 3 top cabaret shows in Paris. They cost around €100-150 for dinner and a show. Moulin Rouge is in Pigalle, and is the most famous – but isn’t always the best. I’d go to the Lido – it’s on the Champs-Elysées and is a good mix of old cabaret and new technology. The Crazy Horse is the most authentic, but is a tad avant-garde! They usually run 2 shows a night, but book in advance. If you choose a late show, consider how you’ll get home, cos they may finish after the last metro… and you don’t really want to get stuck in Pigalle without transport!
Places to visit
For the best FREE view in Paris (aside from up at Sacre Coeur)
Galeries La Fayette department store
40 Boulevard Haussman
Metro: Chausée d’Antin
If you go to the top floor of Galeries La Fayette and go out on to the balcony, there are sweeping views to the Opera house and beyond and pretty much 360 around the city – it’s the best free view you’re gonna get – and a bit of a hidden gem! The view from the Montparnasse Tower is also amazing, and isn’t nearly as much hassle as queuing for the Eiffel Tower.
Most people flock to Père-Lachaise (which is amazing), but I love a visit to the Montparnasse Cemetery instead – it is beautiful and some pretty famous folks are buried here – Baudelaire, Man Ray, Jean-Paul Satre & Simone de Beauvoir amongst others.
TIP – If you do visit Père-Lachaise cemetery, the resting place of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison etc., get off the metro at Gambetta (not the Père-Lachaise stop), as this allows you to walk DOWN the hill rather than UP!
are amazing – thousands of bodies were moved from cemeteries during the expansion of Paris – they were then stacked neatly into these catacombs under the city. It’s only about €12, and well worth the 130 steps down and the 83 step climb back out again! Get there early or go on a weekday if you can (hours are 10h00 to 20h30, last admission is 19h30), as they can only let 200 people into the catacombs at one time (and I’d rather be down there with less)!
Ile de la cité & Île Saint-Louis
Most people visit Ile de la cité to see Notre Dame, and that’s definitely worth doing, but there are some other lovely things to do – visit Sainte-Chapelle, the gothic chapel within the medieval Palais de la Cité, with some of the most stunning stained glass you’ll ever see. Or have a picnic at Square du Vert-Galant, the garden at the western tip of Ile de la cité. Or, on a hot day, try the famous ice-cream at Berthillon glacier, 29-31 Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île.
16 Rue des Francs Bourgeois
Metro: Saint-Paul or Chemin Vert
Carnavalet is la Musée de l’histoire de Paris – and it is mostly in French! It is one of the lesser-visited museums, but it is free, and if your French is good enough to pick up the gist of the history lesson, it is well worth a visit. [EDIT: The Musée Carnavalet is currently closed for a huge refurbishment, and will re-open in January 2020]
Le mur des je t’aime (The I Love You Wall)
Place des Abesses – Square Jehan Rictus
Trust Paris to have a whole wall dedicated to saying ‘I love you’ in every language. Set in a small garden just up from the Abesses Metro stop, you can sit and marvel at the words ‘I love you’ – why not grab some churros from the fun-fair vendor nearby and share in l’amour avec votre amoureux!
1 Coulée verte René-Dumont, 75012
The Promenade Plantée (or The Coulée verte René-Dumont) is a 4.7km long walkway and garden, using an old abandoned railway line. It gives the most wonderful views of Paris – at a height you usually don’t have. You’ve probably heard of the High Line in NYC? Well, that was based on the Promenade Plantée!
Canal Saint Martin – If you visit in summer, take a wander to Canal Saint Martin (beyond Le Marais) – it’s a little hipster, but a great relaxed vibe.
*** If you want to avoid the queues, start your day early! Queues at the La Tour Eiffel, and the Louvre are usually decent by 10am; and by lunchtime they are crazy! Don’t buy a bus tour ticket, they are a waste of time, and you can do everything on the metro anyway. Buy a carnet of metro tickets (about 14€10 for 10 (as of August 2017), and you can use them for 1.5hrs on buses, metro, and the funiculare up to Montmartre).
*** Try to get up to Sacre Coeur on Montmartre, even if only for the view – but be careful to avoid the ‘stringmen’ that loiter in the park and on the steps on your way up – they will try to grab your hands and put bracelets on you (for you to then pay for). Just avoid eye contact, and keep walking. Be careful to know your surroundings at night – like in every big city, there are less safe areas, so ask at your hotel if you are concerned.
There are a lot of things to do and places to visit in Paris… but if I have one tip for you it is this: Sit in cafes, watch the world, have un (ou plus) verre de vin and read a book – it is a whole different experience in la belle Paris!
Read my 24 Hour guide to Paris here if you are short on time!
All photos & content © Hannah Henderson and may not be used without permission (sharing this blog post is fine, though!).